They walk among us

The New World Order, Shoreditch Town Hall, 19 November 2011

Hydrocracker’s production, directed by Ellie Jones, took five of Pinter’s political plays and used their common theme to knit them together to form an entirely convincing extended narrative, which was then turned into an immersive experience for the audience.

Actors dressed as security guards frisked and passed (fake) metal detectors over the audience as they entered, inducting us into the authoritarian world of the performance. The people being processed did appear a little reticent, but not because they found the experience intimidating: it was more a case of being unsure how to respond to the situation.

Sporting our newly acquired visitors badges, we milled around in the main entrance hall. The “journalists” with their distinctive press badges and cameras who had filed in with us at the same time were in fact part of the cast.

Officious people in suits wandered around looking busy before leading us up some stairs and into a long narrow room for the Press Conference, which was the first of the five plays in the sequence.

The Minister for Cultural Integrity stood on a podium in front of rows of chairs. The audience were mixed in with the press, creating an inclusive atmosphere. Applause initiated by the Minister’s cronies was impossible not to join in with. As an audience we were conditioned to applaud the performance, but there was an eerie sense that we were somehow providing approval for the Minister’s fascistic nonsense.

The Minister’s sinister warning that critical dissent was acceptable – if left at home – seemed particularly apt in the light of the various Occupy protests.

At the end of the press conference the Minister left the room by a side door and we were invited to join him shortly afterwards. We were told that he had something to show us.

The room was elegantly decorated and dominated by a long table. The Minister sat at one end in front of some papers and a book, which he began to read in silence as we sat down on chairs around the outside of the room. To the side, a clock seemed to tick slowly on a mantelpiece that also held a decanter and glasses.

One for the Road

This was the setting for the first part of One for the Road. The nameless prisoner was sent for and entered the lush room slowly before sitting at the opposite end of the table looking bruised.

The Minister put down his book, Harold Pinter’s Death Etc., and began his questioning. The calm, loquacious, elderly politician made for a more sinister interrogator than the minor functionary who appears to play the role of Nicolas in the text.

The Minister rose from his chair and approached the prisoner at the other end of the table to talk to him and wave his fingers in front of his eyes. The authentic decanter and glasses made for a realistic setting.

The ticking clock, which was discovered later to be a sound effect, added an extra air of menace to proceedings.

Once the prisoner’s interrogation was finished, we were ushered out of the room and taken down a stairwell to sign confidentiality forms. Tables were decked with piles of forms and assorted biros. As we queued to sign, a boy dashed into the room before being restrained by a guard. The Minister walked in through another door and thus began the next part of One for the Road in which the prisoner’s son was questioned.

The conversation with the boy took place amid a group of bemused audience members and finished with the woman who had escorted us to the room looking embarrassed that we had witnessed this spectacle.

We were led back to the entrance hall and told to wait. Two actors in suits joined us to perform Precisely. This miniature was the most difficult to shoehorn into the sequence of plays because the play is a sideways comment on the callousness of the kind of cold war mega-death calculations that used to occupy decision-makers during the 1980s. As such it has little resonance with current politics and consequently fell a little flat.

But this was soon forgotten as a woman in dark shawl beckoned us to leave the building via the front door and follow her down to the basement via some steps. There, in the dark underworld of the building, we were met by soldiers and some civilians who mingled among us as we were instructed to line up against the wall on both sides of a long hall.

Mountain Language

This was the setting for the first part of Mountain Language. The foul-mouthed squaddies ordered the women around in a way that gave us our first convincing experience of truly unpleasant behaviour. A woman with a bandaged and bleeding hand was told that the dog that bit her should have given its name before biting. This callousness delivered at full volume was really disturbing to witness at close quarters.

Further foul language and sexual harassment brought the sequence to a close and we were escorted into a smaller visitors room for the second part. The prisoner being visited was the same man we saw as Victor in the previous One for the Road scene.

With the audience quite close to the table where the prisoner sat facing the old woman visiting him, the loud and violent crack produced as the guard smashed a large piece of wood against the table was shocking: perhaps the most convincingly brutal of all the petty acts of malice within the performance.

The impact of this was slightly undercut by the stage directions being followed to the letter. The lights are supposed to dim and the voices of the prisoner and visitor are heard in voice over. In this brightly lit room the sight of the actors sitting mute as their voices played out over speakers was a little odd.

We returned to the hall again for the third part of Mountain Language, which showed yet more humiliation of the hooded prisoner.

A woman with a clipboard, who had been ushering us around the building led us out the hallway and stood outside the door to another room. She quizzed us individually using intrusive, but faintly nonsensical questions taken from Pinter’s Hothouse, before admitting us to the room.

The New World Order

The small room was the setting for The New World Order. The prisoner was being held by two soldiers. They taunted him with allusions to the punishments they were about to inflict, as the sound of screaming filtered in from elsewhere in the building, adding to the tension. The brutality of the soldiers was nicely undercut by their subsequent comic sentimentalism about the virtue of their actions.

The final part of Mountain Language saw us back in the visitors room. A security camera panned noisily from side to side to add to the atmosphere of surveillance. The sequence ended with the prisoner collapsing in a fit on the floor, after which we were escorted out by increasingly tetchy and uncommunicative guards.

We were led through more of the town hall’s basement area past a woman talking alone before being ushered into a bare room for the Gila scene from One for the Road.

She stood helpless and bare-footed on the wooden floorboards looking shaken and frightened. The only light in the squalid room flickered on and off as the government minister stood close to her and shouted abuse at her.

The audience left the room by a door to the outside. We walked around the side of the building and up some stairs to a larger, more comfortable room for the final scene in One for the Road.

A desk stood in one corner at which the Minister sat before rising to set the prisoner free, but not before delivering the devastating final line, insulting the prisoner’s son in the past tense, implying that he had been killed.

Another set of doors to the outside, this time at ground level were opened by the guards and we watched in silence as the prisoner hobbled through them and down the centre of an alley called Rivington Place before disappearing round the corner at the junction with Rivington Street.

The audience were then unceremoniously ushered out the same doors and told to hand in their name badges by the unsmiling guards. The only recognition that we had witnessed a theatrical performance came just outside the doors where we were handed a pamphlet-sized programme.

Without any opportunity for applause or seeing the cast out of character, we emerged into the chilly Shoreditch night with our thoughts.

Conclusions

There was a definite gain from bringing these five plays together as combined they proved to be more than the sum of their individual parts. However, the long gap between the first two parts of One for the Road and its ending meant that the impact of the offstage death of the prisoner’s son was muted. When performed in isolation this shock revelation comes when our mind is still fixed on Victor’s situation, but in this arrangement with roughly an hour of intervening action, there was a tendency to forget about the boy.

The shock provided by the close audience involvement in the story meant that many of the jokes in the plays, particularly the brutal soldier in The New World Order weeping because of how pure he felt, failed to raise a laugh the way they would have done in a traditional theatrical setting. The audience was in effect part of the action of the play and as we settled into our role as complicit observers we tended not to laugh at events. Perhaps, given the nature of the narrative, that is a healthier attitude to take.

But the main result of the immersive experience provided by this promenade through Shoreditch Town Hall was to enhance the power of the brutality depicted in these Pinter plays.

The increased realism provided by this form of performance hinted that the bullies and authoritarians depicted in the plays are already among us. All that protects us from them is a thin veneer of democracy and civilisation.

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